CSO review: ‘Spacious and sumptuous’

Rain can’t dampen spirits as Milanov, CSO give Amp audience plenty to enjoy

Benjamin Hoste | Staff PhotographerThe Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra performs under the baton of guest conductor Rossen Milanov Tuesday evening in the Amphitheater.

Benjamin Hoste | Staff Photographer

The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra performs under the baton of guest conductor Rossen Milanov Tuesday evening in the Amphitheater.

Guest review by Zachary Lewis

About an evening spent with great music, there can never be cause for regret. Especially when that music is well played. Thus did patrons of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra Tuesday night at the Amphitheater stand in total contrast to the program’s protagonists.

Each of those characters can be said to have transgressed, or at least to have wished things could be otherwise. An intriguing theme. Listeners, meanwhile, not only had nothing to rue; with guest conductor Rossen Milanov on the podium, they also had a great deal to enjoy.

Most colorful on a night filled to the brim with colorful performances was that of both suites drawn by Grieg from “Peer Gynt.” The title figure of those works may stand as the epitome of a dissolute soul, but the readings by Milanov, music director of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, were nothing but focused, set on wringing from the scores all possible radiance and otherworldliness.

If Milanov, longtime former associate conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, erred, it was in the technical sense, on the slow side, in adopting tempos sometimes on the verge of ponderous. But the tradeoff of this, the chance to truly revel in Grieg’s still underappreciated classic, more than justified any sluggishness.

None, certainly, could have wished for greater speed in Milanov’s  accounts of “Morning Mood,” “Ase’s Death,” or “Solveig’s Song,” three of the most beloved excerpts in all of classical music. No, spacious and sumptuous, they were close to perfect as they were. In the latter, in fact, one could clearly imagine the heavenly soprano voice represented by the violins.

Where Grieg asks for spice and vigor, by contrast, as in “Anitra’s Dance” and “The Abduction,” Milanov responded in similar fashion, redirecting his devoted attention to maintaining exceptional lightness a maintaining exceptional lightness and brilliance. Then there were times, such as “Peer Gynt’s Return” and “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” when the conductor simply gave the CSO free reign, intervening only to shape crescendos and help lead the group to forceful peaks.

Far fewer listeners probably were aware of the crime for which the title character in Franck’s “The Accursed Huntsman” had been deemed guilty: hunting on the Sabbath. None, though, could have misunderstand his dreary fate, as interpreted Tuesday by Milanov and the CSO.

Evocative in the utmost, their performance of this obscure symphonic poem was as gripping as the hold demons come to have on the huntsman. Between relentlessly bold statements by the horns and the conductor’s dramatic pacing, the sense of a gathering, surging force on the prowl was unavoidable, and powerfully effective.

The artist depicted by Strauss in “Death and Transfiguration,” meanwhile, hasn’t committed any grave sin, and certainly doesn’t regret his fate. Rather, he simply wishes the end weren’t near, and puts up a fight in the form of keen nostalgia.

Unfortunately, Milanov’s performance here was somewhat weaker. Over the sea of feeling Strauss churns up, the conductor wasn’t always fully in charge, and the reading by the CSO Tuesday was, in places, vague or strident.

But on the journey to transcendence, Milanov nevertheless touched on emotional benchmarks, conveying ample doses of heroic pride, wistful romanticism, and raw fear of death. In this, dynamic contrast proved the conductor’s most vital tool, allowing him to accentuate the difference between elation and terror.

Then again, Milanov also received quite a nice boost from the weather. Seconds after he and the CSO commenced the glorious “transfiguration” music, near the conclusion, the clouds released yet another round of rain.

The effect of the apotheosis couldn’t have been lovelier. Precipitation was falling, but at that moment, thanks to Strauss and Milanov, the spirits of both the audience and the artist in the music were on their way up.

Zachary Lewis is music critic for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.